The Third Way, 31: The Allure of Rome, Part 10 – Reform Longings

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“As the Middle Ages drew to a close, many advocates of reform were convinced that the greatest ill of the church was the obscurantism of what soon would be called the “dark ages.”  The printing press, the influx of Byzantine scholars, and the rediscovery of the artistic and literary legacy of antiquity gave credence to the hope that the furtherance of scholarship and education would produce the much-needed reform of the church.  If at some point in the past centuries practices had been introduced that were contrary to original Christian teaching, it seemed reasonable to surmise that a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices. 

This was the program of the humanist reformers.”

Justo L. Gonzalez, The Story of Christianity, Volume 2, The Reformation to the Present Day.  (HarperSanFrancisco, 1985), p. 10.

This hope, that “a return to the sources of Christianity—both biblical and patristic—would do away with such practices,” inspired Erasmus, Thomas More, and others like them as thed into the 16th Century.  But the signals from the top were not very promising.  The series of “wicked Popes” that afflicted the Roman Catholic Church as the 15th C ended and the 16th began seemed to point to ‘more of the same’ and perhaps even worse, with open depravity and debauchery fouling the Holy See.  The Conciliar Movement had been swept aside by the brazen highhandedness of the nepotistic Curia under these Pontiffs.  There was open flaunting of the law of celibacy even at the Papal level and no evidence of observance of chastity or self-control.

A radical named Girolamo Savonarola had briefly brought a sort of revival and purging of the most flagrant abuses and moral outrages in Florence in the mid 1490s, but when he began denouncing the outright ‘paganism’  and ‘anti-Christ spirit’ of the current Pope, said Pope had manipulated his overthrown and subsequent condemnation and burning as a heretic in 1498.  A little later the massive fund-raising campaign to rebuild St. Peter’s and the Vatican as state of the art manifestations of the new cultural glories began.  All over Europe there were outcries from the humanists and the religious reformers alike at the grandiose scale of the undertaking to be financed on the backs of the whole continent, but the instructions from Rome were to forge ahead and ignore all the carping.  Prelates were directed to send contributions from their dioceses. Eventually, a supplementary campaign would be directed to the gullible unwashed who would buy into the indulgence promises for their dead loved ones and themselves when they would pass on. The “unwashed” did.  Local needs must be met by local tithes and offerings on top of everything else.

For the 99% of the at least nominally Roman Catholic population of Europe west of Muscovy and north of the Balkans in the early 1500s, Rome was the ‘Holy City’, the awesome place where dwelt the exalted personage of Christ’s earthly representative.  They held all kinds of fantastic notions about the place and the person who sat on the lofty gold-leafed throne that shone like heaven’s seat itself.  To make pilgrimage to Rome was an ambition only next to the now all-but-impossible idea of pilgrimage to the Holy Land, once more locked firmly in the mail-fisted Islamic grip.

Pilgrims traveling to Rome in the last 100 years before Western Christianity blew itself apart, disillusionement often proved tbiggest outcome.  The tawdriness of Rome in those days quickly disabused many visitors.  The ardent pilgrims were viewed as sheep to be fleeced by the wily Roman populace.  Everything in Rome came at a price—access to pilgrimage sites, masses and novenas for the peace and remission of one’s own or one’s loved ones’ sins, a brief instant of audience time in the Papal presence, outrageous prices for food and accommodation, and the prospect of being waylaid and robbed on the roads and byways around or in the city itself. 

Visitors to the city often left minus the aura of holiness they may well have arrived with thanks to the army of priests and mountebanks peddling relics, medals, rosaries, and making outrageous claims for the spiritual blessings and benefits they came with.  It took a heavy dose of credulity to accept that the red-robed “Princes of the Church” parading in jewels and expensive robes and carried to and fro in fancy sedan chairs or carriages by legions of liveried servants and escorted by Papal guards were the living vessels of Christ’s grace and mercy who dispensed His favour to a yearning people.  If the Pope was even glimpsed, he seemed far removed from the pictures of the poor, simple Jesus one saw in the stained glass of the churches or heard about in the Gospel stories.

Such a visit, in company with other monks of his Augustinian Monastery, illuminated and disillusioned the mind and spirit of a young German monk named Martin Luther in 1510.  Luther never forgot that visit or its impact on him.  He remained an obedient servant of his Order as he departed, but his awe for Rome and its Papal monarch had evaporated.  The full fruition of this would explode a little over a decade later.

The humanists were not the only ones hoping for some miracle of awakening to turn the hearts of the people and the drift of the church and society away from some sort of cosmic upheaval.  Surely the renewed advance of Islam into Europe after the dismal failure of all the Crusades to stem the tide, and most recently the Fall of Constantinople, the bastion protecting Europe’s Eastern door, were signs of God’s judgment and displeasure?  And yet the secular Princes did not seem to care as they set out to enrich themselves by seeking to “do and end-run” around the Turks to the fabled riches of the Orient.  True, they had found some distant new lands far across the great ocean, and there were barbarian pagans there to exploit and perhaps convert— if they weren’t first massacred by Spanish and Portuguese conquistadors posing as agents of Christ the King via his stand-ins, their earthly sovereigns.  But the tales of Spain’s newly found riches and some thousands of forced baptisms hardly boded a massive spiritual renewal.

More quietly and far less conspicuously, the Brethren of the Common Life worked at the grass roots level, seeking to build community in the towns and cities where the regular institutional church agencies mostly failed to touch the hearts and souls of simple people.  The Brethren did not seek Papal benediction.  Nor did they always approach the Pope’s hierarchical deputies, the Bishops, or the Bishop’s deputies, the parish priests, for approval to establish houses, schools, and centres. 

They focused on providing education to the less advantaged.  They encouraged daily prayer and meditation and study of Scripture and the lives of the saints.  The principle of voluntarism allowed adherents to choose their own level of involvement.  Some took personal vows, but there was no obligation to remain single and take a lifelong vow of chastity or obedience to religious superiors.  They all contributed to a common purse, but having some of one’s own money was allowed as well.

It is unfortunate that the culture of the time gave few options to young women.  Girls’ education, including literacy and numeracy, was entirely at the discretion of the parents, and especially the father.  If not done at home with a tutor or perhaps through the mother or, very rarely, the father, the girl might be entrusted to a convent.  But it is still possible to see the hunger for relationship with the Creator among women very much in evidence, and there were indeed very notable exemplars of some who even gained high reputations and influence.  Hildegard of Bingen and Julian of Norwich are two such, and there are many others.

There seemed a sort of ‘quiet before the storm’ as the 1510s moved along.  Perhaps it was more the numbness of hopelessness, what with the holders of temporal and spiritual power so firmly anchored in the status quo when the need for drastic spiritual and social reform was so evident to all—even the peasants and labourers in the countryside and cities.  National rivalries continued to fester and block meaningful steps forward, lest somebody lose some real or perceived position of advantage or influence.  Radicals such as the remnants of the Waldensees and Lollards were still hunted and executed, despite a growing grass-roots sympathy for them.

Perhaps the most salient critique of the absurdity of the situation came from Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most reputable Christian humanist of the day.  His The Praise of Folly (1509) was a scathing exposé of all the clichés of superficial Medieval spirituality—pilgrimages, relics, physical self-punishment (such as auto-flagellation), fasts, the corruption of so many monasteries and convents, and the flagrant wealth and exploitation of the laity by the church hierarchy.  He wrote the book as a satire in order to avoid censure and condemnation as a heretic for his exposition, and he got away with it.  Even the most obtuse reader could identify everything he “praised” as sadly all too true.  The book was an immense success in terms of the literate public of the day.  But, if everyone with a conscience knew how true it all was why was it so impossible for anything to be done to address all these abuses?

The time for action was past-due, and the patience to wait was fast evaporating.  Kings and Emperor laughed in their sleeves at the Papacy while continuing to pay it lip-service and depend on its role to maintain a spiritually flaccid populace.  The successive Popes were happy to receive tithes and due honours while enjoying the immense benefits of a seemingly unassailable ultimate authority over people’s allegiance.  The Renaissance humanists applied their newly gained philosophical and cultural perspective rooted in the ancient masters of Greece and Rome to find solace from the moral and intellectual wasteland they saw in the decaying body of Christendom.  They advised other discomfited thinkers and sympathizers to do likewise.

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 30: The Allure of Rome, Part 9 – Renaissance

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“… the Romans serve all gods.  That is why the power and the authority of the Romans has embraced the whole world…. they respected the divinities of the conquered, seeking everywhere for strange gods and adopting them as Rome’s own, even setting up altars to unknown powers and the shades of the dead.  Thus, by adopting the rites of all nations they of Rome became entitled to rule over them.”  Minucius Felix, third century Christian apologist, from his work Octavius. 

Cited in Leonard Verduin, The Anatomy of a Hybrid.  (W.B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), p. 14.

As we arrive at the dawn of the Modern Age, the European Renaissance humanists vastly admired the cultural achievements and syncretism of the ancient Greeks and Romans.  In their disillusionment with what they found around them, they extolled the virtues of the Classical Age and found what had taken its place following 500 CE squalid.  With so much of the “Classical Age’s” art, philosophy, and literature renewed as the 15th Century turned to the 16th, the shadow of God’s wrath seemed to be lifting.  Unsettling questions had begun to percolate deeper as the new ideas found their voices; new poetry, music, prose, art, sculpture, and architecture burst forth. “What is man?” queried the humanists, deducing that humanity was glorious in and as itself, not as a mere sinful thing deserving the Creator’s most severe judgment. 

Italy was the cradle and the nursery of this ferment, and the Italian Renaissance rapidly found its way into the European hinterland to the north and west, along with new ways of financing speculative endeavours and new curiosity about the world and nature.  It was the cultural and social equivalent of Rome’s conquering legions setting forth once more to make Italy and ‘Rome’ (the old imperial, cultural mystique, not the spiritual harlot that had insinuated itself into its place) mistress and saviour of (Western) civilisation. 

To retain an image of relevance among the new cultural (g)literati, the Popes of those decades adopted the trappings and aspirations of being Renaissance connoisseurs while lip-serving the role of spiritual guides.  They hired the likes of Michelangelo and Raphael to embellish their monumental edifices. Some of the Renaissance Popes were so little concerned with spiritual matters that they allowed a corrupt Curia to run affairs like a Mafia while they used the huge Papal wealth to satisfy their appetites for art and less savoury things.  They showed up for official functions and gave audiences to the select of the upper crust, but did little else as ‘Holy Fathers’.

All this ‘rebirth and renewal’ required vast outlays of capital to stage and maintain the show.  “Let us have only the best of all this new art and sculpture and architecture to honour God.  Let us rebuild dilapidated old St. Peter’s (and the sprawling Vatican enclave) as a fitting monument to the Prince of the Apostles and his successors as Vicars of Christ, for the seat of Christ on earth is falling into ruin from neglect.  Let us use the [still contested] power of infallibility to assert Christ’s delegated spiritual authority to release the unworthy souls of the departed from almost everlasting torment in purgatory in return for a proper contribution to the erection of this stupendous monument to the glory of the Roman See as the spiritual seat of God’s Kingdom on earth.”

The strictly humanist perspective on the Renaissance, as the humanists themselves named this cultural resurrection, was one of breaking the fetters of what they were already calling the “Dark Ages”, those wretched in between centuries when fear, superstition, Divine wrath and barbarism crushed the human spirit.  Knowledge had been at a premium in those days and the world had seemed a harsh and hard-scrabble place.  Humanity had seemed powerless in the war between God and the Devil, circumscribed and doomed to a fate it had no ability to alter.  The climax of the Black Death and the prolonged wars and depredations of the late “Middle Ages”, as the in-between time also began to be called, had only seemed to confirm this.

But the new humanism had now broken this thrall.  Humankind was glorious and worthy in its own right.  Even Scripture was now found to confirm this, as in Psalms 8 and 82.  (The creation of chapter and verse referencing of the Bible was a Renaissance innovation to facilitate scholarly analysis of the sacred text.)  The invention of the movable-print Printing Press (the mid 1450s was the momentous time when Johan Gutenberg printed the first type-set multiple copies of the Bible[i]) had opened the floodgates to mass education and literacy.  Vehement Papal injunctions against the ignorant laity gaining possession of the Bible for themselves (ignoring that most of the parish priests and monks in monasteries were just as ignorant and illiterate), including, God forbid, women!, could no longer be sustained.

The 16th Century thus opened with a social and cultural clash between rival claimants to the Roman heritage in Rome’s successor civilisation in the West.  Fading from view in this spiritual and cultural Cold War was the hope of the coming of the Kingdom of God on earth as it is in Heaven.  In this gathering confrontation there were a few increasingly isolated voices watching with great concern, men such as Erasmus of Rotterdam and Thomas More of England.  It would become more and more difficult to find tenable middle ground.  Listening to spiritually reasoned argument based on humility and simplicity in seeking and hearing the Creator’s call to loving-kindness, patience, mercy, and reconciliation in and through Jesus alone would be shouted down in passionate denunciation and condemnation of the errors of one’s opponents.

Power and the acclaim of position is an addiction in whatever form one hears its seductive siren call.  Each ‘hit’ of this spiritual-psychological ‘drug’ one gets is like a little confirmation of one’s petty godhood.  Jesus knew this and admonished his first followers about it repeatedly.  He practiced what he told them constantly so that they would really understand, not just hear an intellectual-moral principle:

“The one who lives by the sword will die by the sword.”  (The ‘sword’ is any weapon you select as a brutal, exciting, fast-tracking means of taking power.  Your chosen ‘sword’ will be the weapon you find you are most effective and proficient in.  Perhaps it is a form of emotional manipulation and psychological coercion.  Or perhaps it is a straightforward tool of actual physical violence and intimidation.)

“The first shall be last and the last shall be first.”  (God’s Kingdom does not value prowess in the means and methods of gaining and exercising power as per the usual techniques of the present ‘age’.)

“You call me “Teacher” and “Lord,” and rightly so, for that is what I am.  Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet.”  (To actually do this you have to physically bow down in front of the person whose feet you are washing.  Pretty hard to take a haughty, lordly posture with them after that!)

“The Kings of the Gentiles lord it over them; and those who exercise authority over them call themselves ‘Benefactors.’  But you are not to be like that.  Instead, the greatest among you should be like the youngest, and the one who rules like the one who serves…. I am among you as one who serves.”  Except, perhaps, vote-hunting politicians, and pretense to the contrary, our culture largely despises the elderly and relegates them to the sidelines.  Not so in Jesus’ day, or with almost every generation up to the last few, in the West at least.  The youngest had to apprentice and prove themselves worthy of honour and respect.  They had to serve those who had won the right to lead.)  We could add many other remarks of Jesus to the same effect.

“It is the act of interrupting injustice without mirroring injustice, the act of disarming evil without destroying the evildoer, the act of finding a third way that is neither fight nor flight but the careful, arduous pursuit of reconciliation and justice.  It is about a revolution of love that is big enough to set both the oppressed and the oppressors free.” (Italics are the author’s.)

“Marks of the New Monasticism: Peacemaking”, Common Prayer, a Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals.  (Zondervan, 2010), p. 382.

The imperial way is the way of long-established pattern humankind’s way of directing its societies and deciding what is to be valued. It is based on humanity’s presumption that we can bootstrap our own way into a utopian society, whatever version of that we aspire to.  For a thousand years, the hybrid called Christendom had seemed to offer a way out of that trap.  But as the ‘Middle Ages’ gradually morphed into something new and as yet unpredictable, the hope that the hybrid called ‘Christendom’ could lead to the Kingdom of the Creator on earth seemed like a mirage always moving farther into the horizon.  Were we to cease hoping?  Or was it only the failures of those who had preceded the dawning light of the Renaissance that had driven hope almost out of sight?

TO BE CONTINUED
[i]  1453 – The Fall of Constantinople to the Ottoman Turks sent hundreds of Byzantine scholars, nobles, and merchants with great wealth fleeing to the West, particularly Italy.  Along with the material wealth usually entrusted to the Italian banking families, they brought hundreds of manuscripts of the classics of Greco-Roman literature and a huge influx of new teachers and craftsmen to give a massive, accelerated boost to the Renaissance.  This exodus had already been well under way since the Council of Florence in 1439 had futilely attempted another reunion of the Greek and Roman Branches of Christianity.  By that point, the writing on the wall for the final demise of the East Roman (Byzantine) Empire was quite visible to almost everyone, but the Byzantine Emperor’s appeals to their Christian brethren of the West fell on deaf ears among the fractious, quarrelsome rivals of the emerging national kingdoms.  France and England were locked in the climactic stage of the Hundred Years’ War (Joan of Arc and all that); the ‘Empire’ was rocked by civil war (the rebellious Bohemian Hussites were rampaging into Germany itself) and Italy’s most prominent powers (Tuscany, Milan, Venice, Genoa, The Kingdom of the Two Sicilies, the Papacy) were obsessed with seeking advantages over one another.  Castile and Aragon in Spain had their own crusade to rid Iberia of the remnants of the Muslim Caliphate still anchored at Grenada and Seville.  Italy’s dozen or so principalities were perpetually fighting among themselves for one reason or another.  Thus, the Pope’s appeal for a new Crusade to drive back the Turks was still-born.

The Third Way, 29: The Soul of the West

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(Note to readers: The series on “The Allure of Rome” will be continued at a later time.  Periodically, it will be interrupted by other topics.)

“The totalitarian revolutions, with their practice of inhumanity, lawlessness and depersonalising collectivism, were nothing but the executors of … so-called positivist philosophy, which, as a matter of fact, was a latent nihilism, and which, towards the end of the last [19th] and the beginning of this [20th] century, had become the ruling philosophy of our universities and the dominating factor within the world-view of the educated and the leading strata of society.  The postulatory atheism of Karl Marx and the passionate antitheism of Friedrich Nietzsche can be considered as an immediate spiritual presupposition of the totalitarian revolution of Bolshevism on the one hand and National-Socialism [Nazism] or Fascism on the other.  That is to say, the prevalent philosophy of the Occident had become more or less nihilistic.  No wonder that from this seed that harvest sprang up which our [the WW2] generation reaped with blood and tears …”

Emil Brunner, Christianity and Civilisation, First Part: Foundations, (London: Nisbet and Co., Ltd., 1948), p. 3.

Little has changed in the mindset of “the educated and leading strata” of Western society since Emil Brunner spoke these words in 1947 as he began the Gifford Lectures at St. Andrews University in Edinburgh, Scotland.  We may add the newer variation of nihilism called postmodernism, but Nietzsche and nihilism still command a huge following, supplemented with Foucault, Marcuse and other more recent, trendy figures, including some hard-left feminist voices.  Existential desperation and despair still rule academia, and no hope of more than a very transient and contingent reprieve is even hinted at.  Meaning in the cosmic sense has faded from view.  We now find only stop-gap contingencies to prolong our tenuous hold on hope—causes to fight for (climate change or gender mutability, anyone?), methods of “self-actualizing oneself to the fullest” during the brief candle of our swiftly-passed sojourn on our freakishly incredible little speck of cosmic dust we call Planet Earth.

Literally, “nihilism” means belief in nothing (nihil = nothing in Latin, + ismus = belief in).  On its own, it is a strange and self-contradictory term.  No one can really believe in nothing, for one must at least believe that one exists in order to actually ‘believe’ a thing, even if we declare that belief as ‘nothing’ or non-existence.  The belief itself, however abstract and ethereal, is a thing we believe and believe in.  One can believe that it all means nothing, but not that nothing exists, at least not with real conviction.

In truth, a nihilist cannot really be a nihilist.  She may be like Descartes, who began his Meditations on the nature of reality with his famous declaration of universal, radical doubt that anything at all actually exists, even himself.  But she can only at last arrive at the same place as Descartes—admitting that she is actually ‘there’ (wherever ‘there’ is) because she is thinking.  As Descartes concluded, it will not answer to posit that perhaps, after all, I am merely an idea in another, greater being’s mind.  In that case, even if that were a possibility (which it can be shown not to be since one has the actual power of independent thought), at least the other, greater being exists to have the ‘thought’ which self-identifies as “I think, therefore I am.”

Brunner’s lectures were given in the immediate wake of World War 2, and he was seeking to understand how the West had “come to this pass.”  His diagnosis is completely brilliant and as relevant, and perhaps even moreso, today as when he composed it and shared it.  We may have seen most of the totalitarian dictatorships crumble into the dustbin of history since 1945, but nihilism and Nietzschean despair live on.  Mockery of the Creator and even the idea of His/Her existence also lives on, declaring, like Sergeant Schultz in Hogan’s Heroes, in the face of the ever-increasing, quietly accumulating scientific (yes, scientific!) evidence to the contrary, “I see nothing; I hear nothing; I know nothing.”  Schultz was choosing to see, hear, and know nothing, and so do our ultra-modern-postmodern nihilists.  As an old friend used to say, “My mind is made up; don’t confuse me with the facts!”

After all, a real, existing Creator, leaving His/Her stamp, image, and signature everywhere for “those who have eyes to see and ears to hear” to perceive, will actually require me to admit I am not my own creator and god, and neither am Ithe actual creator of my own reality.  If I am to be the least bit really honest about that reality, I must admit that I don’t control it.  Then I will have to admit that I am truly accountable and responsible to Someone/Something much greater than myself for the of life I have been given.  As the New Testament puts it, “You are not your own; you have been bought with a price.”  I would need to seek the Creator’s purposes and my place within them in order to achieve harmony with what really is, including within my own being.

It is all very well to say, as the ‘progressive’ nihilists who may confess a sort of transient, temporary (and, yes, even fifty billion contingent years is temporary) existence of something destined to implode and return to nothing that, as the only (as far as we know) self-aware extrusions of the Cosmos, we are responsible to care for the fragility of life in all its forms until we and it inevitably pass into oblivion.  The greatest of nihilist gurus, Nietzsche, has already given the simple, callous, and brutal but completely realistic answer, in the form of a question, to this apparent altruism towards an ultimately meaningless and aberrant ‘something-out-of-nothing-destined-to-return-to-nothing’: “Why?”

Nietzsche is rarely read straight-up by those who claim to proclaim his gospel.  Rather, he is read and admired in dribs and drabs by the “‘wise of this age”, as Paul of Tarsus described the similar folk of his day two thousand years ago.  But Nietzsche is not really taken at his word even by those who claim to be his evangelists.  He said that the meaning of everything, in so far as any meaning is to be found, is only in seizing “the will to power”.  “God is dead and we have killed him,” he said.  (A Theist wag’s reply to this from God’s perspective: “Nietzsche is dead and I’m still here!”). 

The angst-driven, postmodern existentialist turns the “will to power” into, “The will to make yourself whatever you choose, to make meaning whatever you choose.”  Although Nietzsche would not contradict this, he would chide, “But this is not enough.”  I-myself as “God” is so small as to be ridiculous.  But most humans do not have the courage to admit that underneath this revolt against the Creator there really IS nothing to support the claim that we can define reality as we see fit.  The void left by the Creator can only be finally and fully filled when I, the creature, accept who I really am in relationship to Him/Her, the Creator.   Most of us cannot live with true nihilism, for the only position really left to the true nihilist is despair.  Even Nietzsche finally killed himself because he couldn’t find real hope even in his own myth of the Superman and Super Race.  We all desperately want our own existence to mean something real,and we cannot live without some substantial meaning to which we can anchor our lives and identities.

Brunner observes that worldviews inevitably shape the civilisations where they take root.  He then looks at the West and its relationship to Christianity, and the consequences of the West’s rejection of its strongest foundation.  This suicidal rejection is an exceedingly perplexing phenomenon, just as the emergence of anything called a “Christian civilisation” was a mystery in the first place, given that The New Testament says nothing whatsoever about creating such a thing.  It talks much of “the Kingdom of God” and how it contrasts to “this age” or the system of “the world”.  It is radically countercultural in the truest sense, and yet, when it took hold, it spawned the richest and most open culture and society the world has ever seen.  And now we find that the children of this culture have decided, like children so often do, that the parents know nothing and never did, and they can do infinitely better without all that old-style discipline and talk of morality and moderation and accountability to a greater Being and greater good.

Our journey in this blog has been to explore elements of this story and, like a blind person with a walking stick, to tap our way forward towards a “Third Way” of truly knowing the Creator and understanding our relationship with Him/Her.  As we move forward, we also need to look backward, for our fore-parents were not stupid and probably not as blind as we have chosen to make ourselves or make them out to have been.  People across all cultures and ages have been seeking harmony within themselves and with the creation and whatever or whomever brought it into being.  Therefore, wisdom and insight can be found in various traditions and quests, as well as insight in how not to travel this road.  In every age people have blundered into ditches or, even worse, a terrible morass by adopting insane, reality-denying and destructive notions of what is and what it means.  Now, in the 21st Century, the West has lost its way and must once more go seeking its soul.

The Third Way, 28: The Allure of Rome, Part 8 – Wycliffe and Chaucer

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A good man was ther of religioun,

And was a povre Persoun of a toun;

But riche he was of holy thoght and werk.

He was also a lerned man, a clerk,

That Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche;

His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.

Benign he was, and wonder diligent,

And in adversitee ful pacient …

Geoffrey Chaucer is the best-known English poet of the Middle Ages.  His lifetime also happens to span the period of tremendous turmoil we were considering in the previous post to this one.  He and most of those he served at England’s court as a secretary and bureaucrat survived the ravages of the Plague, while witnessing the early stages of the Hundred Years War.  He was an early Renaissance man, and helped English finally emerge as the dominant language of government and society in England.  He made himself a master of it and did much to fashion it into the flexible, powerful communication tool it has become.  He played a role in making it “respectable” for educated people to use it every day at court and in official business because, despite being a great linguist in his own right, he preferred it over the ‘superior’ tongues of Latin, Italian, and French, all of which he knew and spoke with facility.

Chaucer was a contemporary with another great scholar and force of that age, John Wycliffe (1320-1384).  There is no evidence the two ever met, but it is certainly not impossible, and is even probable.  Wycliffe was a chaplain to King Edward III for some years in the early 1370s and Chaucer was frequently at court.  Wycliffe was also a master of Latin and certainly knew French.  He was a professor at Oxford University, and for a time was considered the leading light among its faculty and quite popular with students.  His work would have enormous impact on Western culture and society over the next two centuries at least.  In his way, he contributed perhaps even more to the emergence of the modern world than Chaucer, although he is now mostly a footnote in religious and cultural studies. 

Chaucer was religious in a conventional way, as was required of those moving in the upper echelons of late Medieval society.  He would not ‘rock the boat’—although his unfinished ‘magnum opus’, The Canterbury Tales, raised many of the really important issues facing the culture of that time.  He had already published other, well-received works.  The Tales were only published posthumously, whereas Wycliffe’s work went very public during his lifetime and shook the very foundations of English society. 

It would have been extremely interesting to have listened to these two converse about the problems of their age, especially of society and church.  They had a common link which could have made that happen: they both enjoyed the patronage and protection of John of Gaunt (Gaunt being Ghent in Belgium), the ‘black sheep’ of the royal family.  Gaunt was also known as the Black Prince, and was the fourth son of King Edward III.

Wycliffe sought what we have been calling ‘The Third Way’.  He diligently studied the New Testament, assessing the whole ecclesiastical and social system of the time as aberrant from Christ’s true Kingdom.  He lamented the alienation and estrangement of the humble folk from the sacramentalism which seemed most suited to hold the populace bound in submission to the clergy and their lordly allies as they used their hard-won and meagre wealth and offering little solace and practical support in return.  He became more and more convinced that the paradigm of Christendom had to change and that it represented very little of what Jesus had taught by example and word. 

After all, Jesus had not gone to the religious establishment of his day to initiate the Kingdom of God.  From the day of his birth he had lived, ministered, and died among the humble, the outcasts, the downtrodden, the hopeless, those scorned and rejected by the rich and powerful.  From the first, the worldly powers, in the person of Herod the great, had sought Jesus’ death. 

Wycliffe agonized about how to bring Jesus back to the common mass of people of his time and country.  The whole sacral system depended on everyone meekly accepting their God-ordained lot as serf, free holder, landless labourer, apprentice, etc., while turning to the Church to ensure access to God’s mercy and grace for the hereafter.  The priest and prelate were the instruments dispensing this mercy and grace via the sacraments and sacramentals, the intermediaries ordained to advocate with the great Judge. 

Wycliffe concluded that the Good News had to be taken directly to the people, just as Jesus and the disciples had done.  He determined that Jesus had eliminated the need for a special class of intermediaries when he died on the cross as the ultimate, final sacrifice for sin and alienation from God.  The true and final authority in God’s family was his Word, not a Pope or set of “Princes of the Church” who mocked God with their scandalous lives and opulent lifestyle supported by the poor and hard-working faithful.  God the merciful and loving is everywhere and does not need a special ‘holy place’ to meet his people.  The people themselves are his temple and his body.  The people had to be able to hear and even read the story for themselves, ending their dependence on half- and even un- educated priests who cared little if at all for their temporal welfare, let alone their fate in eternity.

Wycliffe’s predecessor at Oxford, William Ockham  (1280-1349), had shared many of the same views about the Papacy and the Church.  He had been condemned as a heretic in 1326 and excommunicated.  Similarly, the dissidents in the 12th and 13th Centuries in France and Italy, the Waldensees and Humiliati, had already been much persecuted and killed for holding many of the same views and their stubborn remnants were still hunted. Thus Wycliffe fully understood his eventual probable fate.

Wycliffe was too outspoken, and for this he was ejected from his teaching post at Oxford and his royal appointment as a chaplain.  He was confined to his parish of Lutterworth where it was hoped he would fade into obscurity.  But he did not.  Many of his students and hearers followed him.  He began a great project of re-evangelization of England, knowing his time was limited and he could look forward to ultimate condemnation and probable execution.  His enthusiastic disciples agreed to help him to translate the Bible into English, make multiple manuscript copies, and then take it to the humble folk in their villages and towns.

Wycliffe was condemned as a heretic in 1384, six years after the western Great Schism of two rival Popes began.  John of Gaunt was politically forced to withdraw his protection.  The priest of Lutterworth was to be arrested, but he inconveniently died before they could get to him.

The sheen of Rome’s appeal was much tarnished in those years.  Kings, Princes, and Emperors all resisted and resented the imperial Papacy and ultimately refused to accept its claims to final authority in things temporal as well as spiritual.  But the allure of absolute spiritual sovereignty still carried great weight.  There was still the call to unity in Christendom, at least in theory and doctrinal and ritual conformity. 

If, as Scripture says, there is “one God, one faith, one baptism, one Lord and Father of all” then to threaten the unity of Christendom by questioning the Church’s central authority to define “God, faith, baptism (who is in and who is not)” was to threaten the very community under the Lord and Father of all who had created the Church and given it the final authority over spiritual things, including matters of salvation and how to achieve it.   But that was the very nub of all the disputes that were brewing. Was the Church under an absolutist spiritual monarch the true Church as Jesus and the Apostles had first created it, the church of God’s family?  Or was it an aberrant, corrupt hybrid, as more and more were beginning to suspect and question?  Was the whole office of “Pope” and “Vicar of Christ on earth” a human usurpation in the old pagan Roman spirit rather than the Holy Spirit’s way of guiding those seeking to know and worship the Creator “in spirit and in truth,” as Jesus had put it?

TO BE CONTINUED

The Third Way, 27: The Allure of Rome, Part 7 – Black Death

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“I AM WHO I AM; I WILL BE WHO I WILL BE; tell them that I AM has sent you.” Yahweh-Adonai to Moses, Exodus 3: 14.

The scholars were awake.  The artists were awake.  New-old knowledge and truth was beginning to bring excitement and hope to the longing lands of the West in the early decades of the 14th Century.

Then came the horrendous Black Death (1347-51), coupled with the calamity of the Hundred Years’ War (1337-1453) engulfing the western Kingdoms of France and England.  A war on that scale and of that duration could not but greatly impact the neighbouring states as it ran its course. Tentacles reached into Spain and Portugal, Italy, the Lowlands, and the Empire.  The Plague devastated all of Europe, North Africa, and western Asia in a few brief years.  We forget that it had already snuffed out millions in Central and Eastern Asia in the late 13th and early 14th Centuries.

Surely it must be the Apocalypse!  And on top of all this there was the festering Papal schism, the Pope in Rome versus the Pope in Avignon, in the Western Church.  It seemed a fitting retribution for provoking the yawning divide between eastern and western Christendom in the Great Schism of 1054.  Christendom seemed reduced to a shadow, a shattered community, and the dual and then triple Papacy’s claims to spiritual leadership a mockery.  The secular leaders ignored the plight of their suffering peoples and the spiritual leaders squabbled, blamed, and anathematized one another.  Who really cared for the poor survivors of the sweeping devastation unleashed by the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse?  Even the dedicated caregivers perished along with those they cared for.  Best to flee and hope you could somehow escape God’s wrath.  Even God seemed to have turned his back and declared that the edifice of Christendom should be torn down to the foundations.

Now, almost eight centuries after these horrific multiple whammies, which historians and other analysts estimate to have wiped out between a quarter and third of Europe’s total population of perhaps eighty million between 1347 and 1351, we have mostly forgotten this even occurred.  We imagine the calamity of World War 2 to have been the worst event in human history, but it pales in proportion to this period of woe.  The devastating Spanish flu of 1918-19, the last real pandemic in recent history, pales in perspective despite its estimated global death toll of sixty million.  The plague did not tear or bomb down structures, but it left whole towns and regions deserted, ghost-like vestiges that the wilderness swallowed in a few decades.

Losing twenty to twenty-seven million of eighty million meant economic and social chaos for entire countries.  In comparison, the Soviet Union lost 22 million out of 160 million in WW2.  Germany lost 6 million out of 80 million.  Only the Jewish loss of 6 million out of a world population of about 12 million (9 million in Europe) is comparable, but the Jewish population was dispersed among many nations rather than concentrated[i].  (This is not meant to minimize the Holocaust or any nation’s national loss in WW2 in any way.)

If God had seen fit to unleash such wrath on Christendom, gross spiritual and moral bankruptcy must be the cause.  Had not Francis of Assisi and other reformers been sent to prophetically warn and call the faithful to repentance?  And had their call not been ignored or reduced to a token by those who should have heard and led the way back to the Creator and his order for creation and humanity?  Who could have faith in leaders who spent their time seeking power and reward in this world, living as if the poverty of Christ had been completely irrelevant to his whole message?

Repentance seemed in order, and, with families and communities destroyed, crowds of penitents took to wandering and preaching judgment and repentance, punishing themselves in pleas for Divine mercy.  Others refugees resorted to pillage and banditry, as local authority disintegrated and resources were scarce.  Besides, who was to stop them (except when God’s judgment finally caught up)?  In areas where the devastation had somehow been lesser, a semblance of order was reasserted by local lords or towns, and the lords used their men-at-arms to chase the outlaws and vagabonds off to easier pickings, as did the town magistrates by recruiting town militias of upstanding citizens.

What was to be gleaned from the catastrophe once it became clear that the end of the age had not come, but that God had granted a new reprieve?  As with all disasters, the responses were of two kinds: (1) to see the hand of God and the need to reform life both collectively and personally, (2) to decide that the Creator, if He/She is there at all, is not the benevolent, merciful being they had been told about, but either a capricious fiend or an indifferent tyrant.  If the first, change and renewal would have to come from the people, for the leadership were mired in their sin and showed no signs of turning from it.  If the second, then it would be best to begin to enjoy what there is to enjoy in this world and not waste time on appeasing an unappeasable or indifferent Creator.

At any rate, how was it possible to return to what had been before, to reassert the old bonds of fealty and order and duty of each of the three Orders (Estates, as the French called them)—clergy, nobility, commoners?  Nobles and clergy may have suffered somewhat less by being able to isolate themselves more effectively when the plague had passed through their region, but all had been severely affected.  Serfs found their masters dead, vassals found their liege lords gone, or lords had lost those who were supposed to support their rule and receive their fealty.  Many had lost most and even all those they cared about in the world.  Serfs abandoned their lands and wandered to find more generous situations, or went to the towns to live as free townspeople.  Old records were burned or became irrelevant. Labour was scarce and money was to be made.  Men-at-arms went to find more favourable lords or ran off to become freebooters.  New lords asserted themselves by taking control of areas left without a lord, then offering fealty to whichever superior liege would give the best terms.  Towns gained greater autonomy in return for direct loyalty to the sovereign, thus gaining independence from feudal obligations in return for taxes and militia during war.

But where was hope to be found?  Was life just short and brutal with no more significance than finding the maximum comfort and least pain in its brief span?  Few openly questioned that there was a Creator-God, but if there was, how was He/She to be related to?  The Church had lost much of its moral authority and its leaders offered no answers except more of the same old rituals and dogmas, or the idea of being more diligent in piety and abnegation.  Certainly, there were movements in that direction, and new devotions and strivings, but there were huge questions still hanging: Why?  What must be done? 

There were voices suggesting God must be sought apart from and beyond these things, or that the Gospel (and therefore Jesus, the Lord) had in fact had been betrayed by the selfish elite. He must now be rediscovered and made real once more.   There was also an awakening to the challenge of new knowledge and ancient wisdom.  Were we to continue to deny the goodness of the creation we find all around us?  Were we not made to appreciate it and discover God’s love within it?  In this, the ancient sages had much to tell.  If the Golden Age’s sages and example were to be taken seriously, it might help find a way forward.

Like a tremendous earthquake, The Black Death sent aftershocks.  For example, more localized outbreaks brought more horror to London and southern England in 1368.  The people found the Church unable to answer, but surely God must stay his hand in answer to all the prayers, entreaties, flagellation, repentance in sackcloth, pilgrimages, and works of charity which the survivors proliferated.  The quarrels among rival Popes and prelates and the political manipulation by Kings and Emperor of these rivals only bespoke the complete bankruptcy of hoping for renewal from on high.  It would have to come from the grassroots, and, it seemed, it would need to be more assertive about the evils at play than Francis’ inspired and admirable way through submission to authority while preaching self-denial and the Gospel of poverty.  It would also have to surpass Thomas’ intellectual spirituality in accessibility, using simpler means to communicate the Gospel truth in a way everyone could receive.

TO BE CONTINUED


[i]  In the 1930s, Poland and the Soviet Union had the largest Jewish populations, and the three million Polish Jews were almost wiped out by the Nazis.  This represented about 10% of Poland’s pre-war population, a very significant number.  Soviet Jewry lost about 1½ million, accounting for about 1% of the Soviet population, and 7% of all Soviet war deaths.

The Third Way, 25: The Allure of Rome, Part 6: Francis & Thomas

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“Two things … laid the foundation for what was now to follow: first, the gradually awakened cultural thought and awakened piety of the Middle Ages: and second, an increasing distortion of the teaching of the Bible and the early church.” 

Francis A. Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? The Complete Works of Francis A. Schaeffer, Volume 5, A Christian View of the West.  (Crossway Books: Wheaton Illinois, 1982), p. 105.

One year after Francis of Assisi died, Thomas Aquinas (1227-1274), another great of the Middle Ages, was born.  Both Francis and Thomas came from wealthy Italian families.  Both displeased their parents by choosing a church life instead of following their fathers into the family business.  Both would profoundly challenge the church and their contemporaries to do better as Christians in building the Family of Christ on earth.  Both were humble, self-abnegating and self-effacing examples of piety and devotion to God.  They sought wholeheartedly to further the coming of his Kingdom as their lights directed them.  Both became great saints in the Roman Catholic tradition soon after their deaths.

But they were also vastly different.  They represented two very contrasting ways of seeking “the Third Way”.  Yet both sought a road back to direct experience and relationship with the Creator, a way past the stultified, stifling, hierarchical, rigidly controlled legalism and forms of an increasingly oppressive and imperial Church version of Christendom. 

As he matured, Thomas knew the tales and legends of the towering figure of St. Francis.  He was certainly very aware of Francis’ extremism, his disturbing, flamboyant radicalism, and his enormous legacy and impact, as was everyone in Italy and much farther afield.  But this was not for him.  He chose to become a more conventional monk, taking a semi-isolated and inconspicuous path towards the Creator.  Nevertheless, his impact would be remarkable in its own right during and after a life just slightly longer than Francis’.

Devoted to study and prayer, Aquinas became a scholar among scholars.  After his death, he would be proclaimed a ‘Doctor of the Church’—an honour conferred very rarely and only upon those considered theologians of the very first rank, just beneath the Apostle Paul, a sans pareil

At first, he seemed the most unlikely candidate possible to reach such a pinnacle.  He was extremely taciturn; he was not eloquent when he chose to offer his views.  He was mocked as ‘the [dumb] Ox’.  But, maturing under the mentoring of Albertus Magnus, the most prestigious scholar of the generation prior to Thomas’, he flourished.  The brilliance and depth of his mind and deep spirituality of his spirit emerged.  In the end, even the Pope would turn to Thomas for insight.

On the other hand, in practice if not in theory, Francis had largely abandoned the institutional forms of Christianity (except Mass and the sacraments) and even refused ordination to the priesthood, whereas Thomas strove to purify and strengthen the institution in order to conform it more closely to what he conceived as God’s design for it.  He believed that truth is truth, wherever you find it. 

When the works of Aristotle, perhaps the greatest and most systematic philosopher of antiquity, and certainly the most prolific in written output, became available via migrant scholars bringing treasures of forgotten documents of antiquity from Constantinople and Muslim Cordoba in Spain, Thomas eagerly delved into them seeking new revelation about the nature of Creation and humanity.  His reading and profound study brought him to conclude that human reason is a means of knowing God almost on a par with Biblical revelation and Church tradition.

This contrast in approach between radically pure simplicity (Francis) and seeking to reform from within via reasoned persuasion (Thomas) is not new.  It recalls Jesus facing the institutional forms and scholarship of the ‘Judaisms’ of the First Century.  Back then, the Essenes were the extremists rejecting the whole establishment as corrupt and beyond redemption.  The Sadducees were the thorough conformists, seeking this-worldly power and position to preserve and maintain the system and their own privileged position as the elite.  Another party within Judaism were the Pharisees, who, like Thomas, represented a sort of reasoned midway position between the extremes of Essene and Sadducee.  Finally, the Zealots, like the Medieval Crusaders, sought violent purification of the land in order to ready it for the coming of the Messiah-King who would make Israel (Catholic Europe under Rome) supreme. 

Jesus fitted nowhere comfortably in any of these ‘parties’, although theologically he most closely resembled a Pharisee.  He was a threat to all of them, as well as Rome over the long haul, and paid with his life.  He had called his disciples to “take up your cross daily” and challenge the supreme authorities with the declaration that God’s Kingdom is “not of this age.”  Kosmos is the Greek word often translated as “age”, and in its New Testament context it connotes the whole way we relate to God’s creation by force and manipulation rather than by seeking to work in true harmony with God’s purposes for it and us.

The early Church, still keeping close to Jesus’ first impulse, emerged as a real threat to establishment Judaism and Rome.  For its first two and a half centuries the primitive Church weathered the assaults of the ‘powers that be’ rather well, although it had begun to absorb the marks of institutionalization from early times.[i]  With Constantine’s coup in recruiting the Catholic (Universal) Church to serve as an imperial adjunct in the early Fourth Century CE, ‘official’ Christianity passed from its age of innocence into the murky realm of political, moral, social, and economic compromise and manipulation for the purposes of furthering its own agenda as conceived from on high (at the Patriarchal level).  In effect, it became imperialist—Roman!

A great irony awaited the Imperial Roman Universal (Catholic means universal) Church as the Middle Ages drew to its dénouement.  Having become quite Roman in system, form, and ambition, blessing it all with elaborate ceremony and invocation of God and Christ, who had preached both “Blessed are the poor in spirit” and “Blessed are the poor,” the Church would re-import the seeds of its former great enemy, pagan wisdom and its worship of human reason.  A new hunger for more ancient wisdom would arise from the rediscovery and dissemination of Aristotle’s amazing works.  The Crusades had opened the doors to a trickle, which then became a steady flow, of Byzantine and Muslim scholarship based on many ‘lost’ works from the glory days of Rome and Greece.  Italy was the first area of the West impacted, but the new Italian scholarship began to expand into the Holy Roman Empire, France, the Low Countries (now called The Netherlands and Belgium), and England.  The New Testament in Greek was ‘rediscovered’ as part of this package.

From this influx of new-old wisdom written in beautiful, classic Latin and Greek came admiration of that ancient literature and poetry and drama and science, and, as absorption grew, so did the desire to emulate it.  Next came the imbibing of the spirit of these ancient sages, the spirit of ‘humanism’.  It seemed to the ‘humanists’, as the new generations of scholars began to identify themselves, that the essence of the ancient civilization of Rome had been rooted in a delicate and noble recognition of human beauty, form, and dignity not dependent on a slavish servitude to gods (including, by implication, the God of the Bible).  The philosophies of the lost Golden Age had been noble efforts to formulate the perfect balance in life and a reasoned-out approach to the Creator or whatever really existed in a spiritual sense.

It is beyond our scope here to go into detail on the progression of this recovery of ancient humanism in the West.  The movement it sparked has been called the “Renaissance”—a French term meaning rebirth.  It took form under the guidance and direction of a group of 14th Century Italian scholastics.  They won support and admiration from their peers, and the movement spread into art, sculpture, and architecture.  The results reverberated across the culture and challenged some very basic Medieval notions, including the inviolability of Papal authority and Church dogma.  The rediscovery of the Greek New Testament opened up a profound re-examination of the established paradigm of the Gospel and the formation and history of the Church itself.

When all of this is married to the growing dissatisfaction with the imperial, established Church system and the increasingly obvious distortion of holiness into formal sacramentalism and the suppression or cooption of all attempts to return to a spirit of simplicity in seeking God, the makings of a great upheaval were at hand.

Ironically, the Renaissance of ancient humanism rooted in pagan Imperial Rome would play a significant role in fracturing the unity and supremacy of the imperialist Roman Church.  The 13th Century saintly giants, Francis and Thomas, stood as precocious signposts to the roads that would diverge from the main highway in the 14th  and 15th Centuries and generate revolutionary events in the 16th Century.

TO BE CONTINUED

[i]  Institutionalization seems inevitable this side of the Second Coming of Christ.  The struggle is to keep the institutions we are compelled to form and use to make life livable from becoming tools in the hands of the ambitious and unscrupulous.  Those who propose anarchy as a realistic solution are completely naive or misled about human nature and live in a dream.  But that is another topic for another time. 

The Third Way, 24: The Allure of Rome, Part 5

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“Make me a channel of your peace; where there is darkness, let me bring your light;  where there is injury, your pardon Lord …” St. Francis of Assisi

 Charlemagne’s dream of reunifying the West under the banner of a ‘Christian Empire’ died with him in 814 CE and faded from view in the secular sphere.  Henceforth, jealousies and rivalries among rulers would close that door.  But there was one place where the goal of Rome’s supremacy remained very much alive—Rome!

True, there was no longer an Emperor there, but there was an imperial claimant of another sort—the Bishop of Rome, the Patriarch of the Western regions of the (not yet Roman) Catholic Church.  Even with Charlemagne, the alliance between the Imperial throne and the throne of St. Peter had been an uneasy one, as the Popes had come to view their place with a spiritualized imperial eye.

The claims of the Popes to first place in the power hierarchy of the West, and indeed the universal Church, had been growing since the late Roman Empire.  With the Empire’s hold over the lands from Italy north and west evaporating, and the Emperor in distant Constantinople, the only prominent authority figure left with a general claim, for Christians at least, was the Pope.  The West’s Patriarch within the Church hierarchy claimed the prestige and authority of the two greatest apostles, Peter and Paul, who had both finished their lives in martyrdom at Rome.

The argument ran that since Christ is the King of kings his authority supersedes that of any earthly sovereign.  When Christ ascended into heaven, he had commissioned his apostles with his authority to carry his Kingdom to the ends of the earth.  Peter was the primus inter pares (first among equals) among the Apostles, because, just before his ascension, Jesus told him to look after his flock as its shepherd.  And prior to that Peter had given Peter ultimate authority to “bind and loose” things on earth in Christ’s name. Jesus had also given Peter the “keys to the Kingdom” of Heaven.

But how did the Bishop-Patriarch of Rome inherit Peter’s authority, assuming that this is what Jesus had really done and that it didn’t just die with Peter?  The rationale was that anyone who stepped into the role of Peter in Rome (Bishop) also stepped into the commission and special authority Peter had received from Jesus.  In effect, he became Peter’s stand-in, and Peter had been Jesus’ designated stand-in.  Ergo, the Patriarch of Rome was the “Vicar” (like a Regent) of Christ on earth.  But how was the line of authority from Peter transmitted to the Bishop of Rome?  Had Peter directly delegated it in some way?  Did he even have Christ’s authority to do such a thing?  Answer to the jeopardy question: the power to bind and to loose! The Church’s greatest ancient historian, Eusebius of Caesarea, who just happened to be a great fan (and personal friend) of Constantine and his imperial commissioning of the Catholic Church to assist the Emperor in ruling the great Roman domain, delineated the direct succession to many of the apostolic and post-apostolic generation of leaders in detail, so tradition confirmed it!  Thus, just as the Emperor designated governors and prefects, Christ designated the spiritual government via the Apostolic Succession.

This line of transmission was nowhere to be found (except by inference) in the New Testament.  After all, an imperial claim of the magnitude the Pope was asserting could not rest solely onso me ambitious ‘Successors’ of Peter’ claims to go one-up on their other Patriarchal colleagues.  (Other Patriarchs hailed from Constantinople, Antioch, Alexandria, and Jerusalem.  The only one in the West was Rome.)

The large majority of Christians tended to be in the cities and towns for the first few centuries.  When inevitable controversies grew over how to interpret Scripture, what to believe, how to live a Christian life, and how to incorporate converts into the “Body of Christ”, the leaders of smaller centers and congregations looked to those of the larger ones.  And among the larger ones, disputes about whose guidance and direction was to have primacy arose.  After a while, it boiled down to just a few senior leaders, “Father-Rulers”—Patriarchs—especially the two in Rome and Constantinople.

Because claims to senior authority had to be backed up, it came down to “the Apostolic Succession.”  This concept declared that the Apostles had the power to pass on their authority to bind and to loose spiritual truth and rules to successors “by the laying on of hands”, i.e., designating a chosen successor upon whom they laid their hands and prayed “ordination”[i]—the impartation of their authority to this chosen successor.  These successors then had the same power to bind and loose and ordain and even condemn.  Thus, as Eusebius recounted it, all true authority in the Church had been handed down in a direct line, via proper ordination, to the Bishops in office, who also then ordained local elders (presbyters [priests]).

The Patriarchs of Rome asserted that because Peter had ministered in Rome for the last few years of his life, he had designated Rome as the locus of his successor, and he would be the “Primate”, the foremost of the chosen leaders of the whole Church.[ii]  Eventually, as Medieval society reached its quintessential expression, there arose a number of truly “Imperial Popes”, claiming both supreme spiritual and temporal power, even the right and authority to enthrone and dethrone monarchs and deny whole countries access to mass and the sacraments, which were held to be the principle channels of God’s mercy, grace, and favour. 

Personal faith in and relationship with the Creator had little to do with any of this.  Certainly there were many good and saintly Christians with deep personal faith, but the official Church had little room, less comfort, and scant patience for such zealots who could and sometimes did radically challenge the proper imperial ordo rooted in Rome’s still potent ambition to reassert Empire via a different route.  It was abundantly clear that whatever spirit was really at work here, it did not bear the marks (love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, self-control) of the work of the Holy Spirit.  The high water mark of Papal Imperialism came under Pope Innocent III (quite the ironic patronym).

So what to do with the fanatics who saw through this charade of using all the levers of secular power to assert Christ’s authority to rule and reign (largely in the same old way by the same old rules)?  First tactic: divert them into less menacing channels and get them to accept the hierarchical model, as with the co-opting of the Franciscan movement even during Francis of Assisi’s lifetime.  It was fitting that that most imperial of all Popes, Pope Innocent III, had to deal with that humblest and most unpreposessing of saints, Francesco Bernardone (1182-1226), the greatest radical and most serious challenge to imperial Christianity of the Middle Ages, and perhaps of all time. 

It was said that Francis died of a broken heart, choosing self-imposed exile in a simple forest habitation rather than one of the proliferating fine new abbeys being built for or handed over to the newly established Franciscan Order.  Francis rejected this seduction and was deposed as leader of his own movement.  But being who he was, Francis could not be left alone.  He was well tended to by his most faithful disciples even as he slowly starved (fasted) himself to death.[iii]

Francis was a pacifist through and through and he preached peace and reconciliation. He was neutralized by the seduction of his followers, but for those who would not be diverted, best coerce them into silence by threats and fear.  If they would not be coerced, eliminate them by excommunication and condemnation as heretics (Albigensians, Waldensians, Lollards, Cathars, etc.), then hunt them down and subject them to the proper penalty for blasphemy and heresy, or perhaps for witchcraft and sorcery and consorting with demons.  Thousands of “wise women” and not a few men who would not go into a convent to practice ‘proper’ spirituality were disposed of this way.

Many ordinary, simple folk looked on in disgust, seeing right through the facade.  There had to be another way, a “Third Way” to know God—not the old imperial way or the increasingly corrupt hybrid called Christendom.  People grew more and more disillusioned and many set about seeking that “Third Way.”

TO BE CONTINUED

[i]  “Ordination” is a very Roman word designating someone’s official, approved acceptance into a distinct “ordo”, or class of persons with special status and rights and privileges, setting them apart from others who thus became lesser and who could then be “patronized”—another Roman term—given gifts and favours from the higher order to the inferior classes.  Being a patron carried weighty responsibilities, but bestowed great prestige and “gravitas”, the air of authority and position the bearer had earned or inherited.  This whole ancient Roman social system is still quite visible in the Roman Catholic and other very hierarchical Christian denominations.  It was one of the principle goals of the Reformation and especially the Anabaptists to shed this imperial (and very unbiblical) religiosity.

[ii]  The English word “church” with its building-centered and cumbersome administrative baggage almost completely misses the real meaning of the Greek word it supposedly translates.  That word is ekklesia and, in the time of the New Testament, it carried a semi-democratic meaning.  It meant ‘the popular assembly’, or the assembly of citizens who had political rights in the local polis, or civic community.  It is certainly debatable that Jesus intended to leave a heavily autocratic, rigidly hierarchic institution to carry forward his mission of bringing the “Kingdom of God” into the world after he departed.  One may be excused for suspecting that another, older pattern based on humanly constructed (Roman) power paradigms usurping the Master’s real intention is at work here.

[iii]  Many hold that the Medieval, and Roman Catholic Church (as well as the historic Church in general) missed its greatest opportunity to return to the “straight path” with Francis.  If his amazing vision and beautiful spirituality had been fully embraced and perhaps given a tweaks for folks who could not match his inner fire, it would very probably have truly, radically changed the direction of both the Church and society.  Even as it was, it brought hope and real spiritual renewal to millions even in Francis’ lifetime.  For many, St. Francis was/is the greatest Christian since the Apostle Paul.